Why Donald Trump’s coronavirus border plan is much ado about nothing

Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau says U.S. putting troops near Canadian border would be a ‘mistake’' Coronavirus outbreak: Trudeau says U.S. putting troops near Canadian border would be a ‘mistake’
WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says it would be a mistake for the United States to position troops near the Canadian border. Trudeau says today he’s told that to the Trump administration, and that he’s still seeking clarity on American plans – Mar 27, 2020

Canada doubled down Friday on its opposition to a plan by U.S. Department of Homeland Security that could have the agency ask the Pentagon to place about 1,000 U.S. troops, armed with sensors, near the border between the two countries to try to detect illegal would-be immigrants.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that Canada was still seeking clarification from the White House about what, exactly, the U.S.’s intentions were and repeated that his government was strongly opposed to the plan.

After the furore in Canada, the U.S. said late Thursday that it was not going through with the proposal, though the prime minister said Friday that he was still unsure about what the U.S. might do.

The prime minister’s remarks followed by a day Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland’s declaration that Canada had made its “opposition very, very clear to our American counterparts.”

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READ MORE: Trump looking to put troops near Canadian border amid coronavirus fears

What should be of greater concern to those Canadians who believe the state should not intrude into their private lives is how high-tech instruments, such as sensors and cellphones, are being used by governments to track people’s whereabouts so that they cannot infect others with COVID-19.

This may not be wrong when there is a global pandemic, but the rights and wrongs of this, and how to put this genie back in the bottle after the pandemic is controlled, are certainly worthy of debate — particularly since Prime Minister Trudeau has said he would consider tracking citizens’ movements if his government concluded that was required.

That the U.S. has been considering moving about 1,000 troops near its northern border (and about 500 more troops to its southern border with Mexico) to assist the border patrol in preventing people from illegally entering there is ridiculous, of course, as relatively few people ever try to cross from the north.

This must be especially true today, with the U.S. having become a petri bowl of COVID-19 coronavirus infection. None among us and few from elsewhere would want to try to break into the U.S. today.

While the mockery that this U.S. plan has engendered is understandable, the stern denunciations from some of the political echelon have been a bit much. The only obvious purpose has been to score easy political points at the expense of a neighbour that finds itself on the ropes at the moment.

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Click to play video: 'Coronavirus outbreak: Freeland calls deployment of troops at Canada / U.S. border ‘entirely unnecessary’' Coronavirus outbreak: Freeland calls deployment of troops at Canada / U.S. border ‘entirely unnecessary’
Coronavirus outbreak: Freeland calls deployment of troops at Canada / U.S. border ‘entirely unnecessary’ – Mar 26, 2020

The prime minister and his deputy apparently seem to have no idea that the U.S. army already has a division (up to 20,000 troops) of combat forces living minutes away by road from the Thousand Islands and Kingston, and 90 minutes away by road and 20 minutes away by helicopter from Ottawa.

The 10th Mountain Division resides on 434 square kilometres of land at Fort Drum in northern New York. The most frequently deployed regular force troops that the U.S. has, the 10th’s soldiers have done multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they have sometimes stood shoulder to shoulder with Canadian and Afghan troops.

And speaking of helicopters, Fort Drum probably has more of them than there are in the entire Canadian Armed Forces.

Out west, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord by Puget Sound, only two hours by road south of Vancouver, more than 40,000 troops from the U.S. Army’s I Corps and the USAF Airlift Command occupy 367 square kilometres of prime real estate. I Corps even has a Canadian general serving as a deputy commander.

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The USAF also has a general based with the RCAF in Winnipeg and Canada has a three-star general at NORAD in Colorado and other flag officers based in Hawaii, North Carolina and Washington, D.C.

READ MORE: Trudeau says U.S. putting troops near Canadian border would be a ‘mistake’

Moreover, the USAF routinely sends tankers, bombers and fighter jets over Canadian airspace as part of their joint responsibilities for NORAD, and U.S. troops from Fort Drum and elsewhere often bring thousands of troops and fighting vehicles to train at CFB Petawawa in the Ottawa Valley or at CFB Wainwright in northern Alberta.

The U.S. also has a string of fighter and bomber bases very close to Canada in northern Washington State, Montana and North Dakota. And the U.S. Navy is believed to almost always have nuclear submarines lurking in Canada’s northern archipelago.

Worth remembering, too, is that the U.S. Border Patrol on both northern and southern frontiers is already armed and often uses helicopters and drones that use radar and other sensors to search for illegal immigrants.

In the grand scheme of things, the U.S. considering placing 1,000 troops along the length of its 8,891-kilometre border near Canada, where about 60,000 troops are already based, is very small beer at this time, especially when hotbeds of COVID-19 infection are breaking out everywhere including British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

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Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Mike Day, the former head of Canada’s special forces, got it right in a Tweet on Friday about Homeland Security’s hair-brained plan.

“We are right to object but any bandwidth devoted to this is issue is a distraction,” he said.

Canada’s political class must maintain a laser focus on slowing down the country’s own mushrooming coronavirus infection rate and find ways to much better protect citizens and health care workers from this pernicious global scourge.

The kerfuffle regarding the mooted placement of, on average, one U.S. soldier for every eight kilometres of the long undefended border is truly much ado about nothing.

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Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas

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